AgResearch is taking an innovative approach as it seeks business partners to develop a new communications network that will converge its data and telephone networks.
IT manager Dr Phillip Lindsay says AgResearch is looking for a business partner prepared to take some of the technology gambles along with AgResearch.
Shared risk — and in some cases profits — is sometimes known as co-sourcing, and though it is not common in New Zealand it has a number of adherents in Europe.
AgResearch recently asked vendors to send in their solutions and received more than 30 responses from both New Zealand and overseas companies. A shortlist of about six will go through a more formal discussion process.
Lindsay agrees that it is hard to predict which technologies will have the longest life. "That's why we're looking for innovative business proposals from vendors prepared to take some of the risk of changes in technology or the changes in patterns of communication."
But he says that doesn't mean it will necessarily be brand-new technology. "We can't afford to look at bleeding-edge technology because we have to operate on a daily basis, but we're certainly trying to look forward as much as we can."
Lindsay says AgResearch should be able to save money by converging its voice and data networks, while positioning itself for newer technology like video-conferencing. The existing frame relay data network is fine for data, but isn't suitable for video-conferencing. "ATM is one answer but there may be other answers," he says.
Lindsay is also interested in IP-based services. "Clearly there's a lot of interest in IP phone networks and there are opportunities to replace PABXs with IP-based phone systems."
One issue for the food and fibre research company is that its staff are geographically dispersed — it has five major campuses — and getting good communications into smaller centres has traditionally been hard in terms of cost-effectiveness. Lindsay says newer technologies like satellite services may be an answer.
Other issues are that Ag-Research has a growing group of mobile workers it wants to maintain in its mainstream communications environment and is a huge user of the Internet. He says that within the science area there are a lot of opportunities to exchange information with others.
Lindsay says it's too difficult to estimate the cost of the network because the solution could be anything from full outsourcing with leased equipment, to the other extreme of full in-house management of the network.
AgResearch is used to being at the cutting edge, having one of the first frame really networks in the country as part of the TUIA network (linking universities, libraries and research institutions) in 1992. At the time it managed the frame relay network in house because the technology was so new few people knew much about it. It also took part in Telecom's OPERA ATM trial that was wrapped up last year. Now it is looking to converge its data and telephone networks with a new communications system.
AgResearch is developing an e-commerce project with Internet-based decision-making tools to help farmers. It could help farmers with things like fertiliser recommendations, for example.